Arthur Rogers’ second-grade lesson begins with a recitation of Pater Noster, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by three rousing verses of Si Hodie Felix Es, Manus Plaude (“If You’re Happy And You Know It”). All dozen uniformed Redeemer Classical School second-graders clap their hands, stamp their feet, shout Jubile! and then do all three. Next comes a call-and-response round of arithmetic:
Mr. Rogers: “Gabriel, quot sunt quattuor et tres?”
Mr. Rogers: “Optime!”
Rogers, Latin teacher at RCS, spends his days moving from classroom to classroom, linking a few dozen young minds and a few millennia of old matter.
Rogers’ interest in Latin began a little more than a decade ago, at Hollins College (now University) near Roanoke, where he earned a master’s degree in English and creative writing. One day in the library, he came across an essay in The Paris Review arguing that the English language’s best poets have been the ones who’ve studied Latin and Ancient Greek. “That’s when I decided I had to start studying Latin,” he says. “I just loved it as soon as I started studying it. It was amazing.”
He sat in on a few Latin classes at Hollins, got himself a few textbooks — “Wheelock’s Latin” is one of the best — and began to learn the language. One of his favorite aspects of teaching Latin is the way he’s constantly learning new things.
The best thing of all is when one of his students responds to the language with an enthusiasm that rivals Rogers’ own.
Old languages, in general, fascinate him. Rogers has been working on a doctorate in Old English from the University of Virginia since 2002; his dissertation may be the preparation of an electronic edition of King Alfred’s 9th Century Old English translation of St. Augustine’s “Soliloquies,” which, of course, he’s also read in the original Latin. He’s also spent a decade or so at self-guided study of Ancient Greek, of which he’s become a proficient reader, and he can pick his way through anything written in French from the Oath of Strasbourg (Anno Domini 842) onward.
“I’d like to study Sanskrit some day as well. And Hebrew. That would be good too … ” Roger says.
With his elementary students, Rogers emphasizes games, songs and memorization. Hangman is one of his biggest hits. By middle school his students get into the formidable minutiae of Latin grammar. After a 10-minute lesson with the second-graders, Rogers heads to his eighth grade class.
Discussion wanders from the ablative case to neuter nouns in the third declension, habitual actions in the past requiring the imperfect tense, to perfect passive participles, et cetera, as his students write their homework sentences on the board, exempli gratia: Ramanae feriae fuerunt novae natura multae numeroque (“There were many strange Roman holidays”).
Posters adorning the walls include the translated Pledge of Allegiance (Fidem meam obligo vexillo civitatium Americae… ), a map of the Roman Empire and a list of key “Star Wars” phrases, exempli gratia iterum: Luci, pater tibi sum. “Luke, I am your father.” (This was a student project; Rogers can’t stand “Star Wars,” thanks to overexposure in years past and the irritating prequels of years present).
Latin study has been gaining popularity in American schools during the past decade. In 2007, 8,700 students took the Latin Advanced Placement exam, according to the College Board, which administers AP courses. In 1997, just 4,700 students took the Latin exam (more than 116,000 students took the Spanish AP exam in 2007). That trend applies locally as well.
“We’ve seen a resurgence in interest, but teachers are in short supply,” said Ed Smith, assistant superintendent for instruction at Rockingham County Public Schools. The county school system has two Latin teachers teaching in the county’s three high schools.
To Rogers, calling Latin a “dead language” is both defamatory and inaccurate.
Much of Europe’s great literature, philosophy and theology was originally written in Latin, he points out, and there’s even an ATM in Vatican City that operates in Latin.
Rogers has yet to patronize it — he’s been to France three times, but never the Vatican, though it’s on his list. His students, though, often question their study of a language of perceived impracticality.
The reason lies at the heart of the Redeemer Classical curriculum, which focuses on the “traditional, tried-and-true” elements of Western education, said Headmaster Ike Lassiter.
“I think that [Latin study] is very helpful in a number of practical ways,” said Lassiter, adding that it helps students learn vocabulary and grammar and gives them a good foundation to study other languages in the future. The curriculum revolves around the traditional elements of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Though that model of education goes back centuries, Rogers says it remains pertinent. “The primary purpose of any education ought to be to teach students how to think, and [to] think well,” says Rogers. A curriculum of classical study, he continues, equips students with wisdom and eloquence. “With those two things, a young man or woman is going to be prepared to live in their world — to live virtuously and to live prudently.”